Laverne Berryhill died in prison for stealing $52 worth of meat from an Oklahoma City grocery store.
He was 33 in 1990 when an Oklahoma County judge sentenced him to 40 years for shoplifting. The sentence might as well have been life without parole — Berryhill died while still incarcerated in 2017. He was 60 years old.
In the intervening 27 years, Berryhill never gave up fighting for his freedom.
He claimed his incarceration was the product of a massive state conspiracy and filed more than 200 handwritten lawsuits and appeals challenging the validity of his prison sentence. He also mailed letters containing fake anthrax to the federal government and threatened to kill at least two sitting U.S. presidents.
None of this probably helped his case.
I never met Berryhill, but came to know him through the many lawsuits he filed in Oklahoma courts over the years. I always wanted to write about his case, but by the time finally I got around to it, it was too late.
The Meat Man
In Oklahoma City law enforcement circles, Berryhill was known as “the Meat Man.”
He would wear pants that were several sizes too big and stuff them full of hams, pot roasts and steaks from the meat section at local grocery stores. Berryhill sold the meat to support his voracious addiction to crack cocaine.
He was always careful to steal less than $50 worth of merchandise, because that was the dividing line between a misdemeanor and a felony charge at the time.
Assistant Oklahoma County Public Defender Jim Rowan represented Berryhill in several meat theft cases over the years and got him acquitted more than once.
One time, Berryhill and an accomplice were driving with a carload of ill-gotten meat in Oklahoma City when a police cruiser began following them, Rowan recalled. When they drove over a bridge, Berryhill tossed just enough meat out the window that the police only caught him with $49.50 cents worth of stolen merchandise — still a misdemeanor.
“He had a drug addiction and he was very much a typical public defender client,” Rowan said. “He was repetitive in his behavior, and the addiction keeps going whether he’s successful or not.”
In one case, a store clerk testified he saw Berryhill walk past her register wearing baggy surgical scrubs stuffed full of cuts of meat. The cellophane packaging crinkled as he walked.
Rowan got the court to discount the clerk’s testimony with photographs that showed it wasn’t possible for him to have seen Berryhill from his vantage point behind the cash register.
The Meat Man walked that time, but his luck was about to run out.
‘You can have your meat back’
It was about 1 a.m. on March 12, 1990, when a clerk at the 24-hour, Skaggs Alpha Beta grocery store near Oklahoma City Community College off Interstate 240 saw Berryhill walk in wearing a conspicuously oversized green army jacket and baggy pants.
A few minutes later, the clerk spotted Berryhill again in the paper aisle, stuffing packages of ribeye steaks from the meat section down his pants.
Berryhill knew he was caught.
The two men stood staring at each other for a moment in the early morning stillness of the empty supermarket.
“You can have your meat back,” the clerk later testified Berryhill said.
Then the Meat Man smiled, turned around and broke into a run.
Berryhill made it to the front of the store — dropping a large, unwieldy roast as he ran. He ran past the row of cash registers, past the double doors.
He was almost home free, pants still stuffed full of meat, when the store clerk tackled him in the parking lot.
After the police got there, the clerk added up the price tags and found Berryhill had taken about $52 worth of merchandise — the Meat Man had broken his own rule, and now faced a felony case.
The Meat Man’s file
I ordered the case file out of storage for Berryhill’s 1990 larceny of merchandise case in Oklahoma County. The woman at the front desk in the court clerk’s office strained to heave the six-inch thick accordion folder filled with water-stained, yellowing stacks of paper from behind the counter.
Like the rings of a tree, each bundle of papers marked another year in Berryhill’s 27-year journey through the criminal justice system.
From his jail cell, Berryhill wrote out a motion in pencil to represent himself and mailed it to the courthouse.
The return address on the envelope is simply marked “jail.”
“Defendant truly believes that his present court appointed attorney is not competent enough to to effectively represent him and or do not have defendants best interest in mind,” Berryhill wrote.
Paul Faulk, an Oklahoma City defense attorney, worked for the public defender’s office at the time and was assigned to advise Berryhill while as he acted as his own attorney.
Berryhill is one of the few clients Faulk remembers out of about 3,000 he represented during his three years as a public defender.
Against the judge’s advice, Berryhill presented an insanity defense to the jury, arguing that his addiction to crack cocaine made him crazy and irrational.
“He did a pretty good job actually,” Faulk said. “He was a very smart guy …. He argued he was a drug addict and had no choice but to steal meat to support his habit.”
In a highly unusual move, Berryhill subpoenaed an assistant Oklahoma County prosector to testify as to the severity of his drug addiction and legal problems over the years.
“I think you’ve been on drugs your whole adult life,” Assistant Oklahoma County District Attorney Barry Albert said under Berryhill’s questioning.
There were no drug court programs in Oklahoma in 1990—only prison. It was the era of “Tough on Crime” policies that included severe prison sentences for serial offenders. With at least a dozen prior criminal convictions, Berryhill was looking at 20 years to life.
The minimum sentence in 1990 for larceny of merchandise after prior convictions in Oklahoma was 20 years. The judge ordered Berryhill to serve two, 20-year sentences consecutively.
Over the next two and a half decades, Berryhill would file thousands of pages of handwritten legal briefs arguing for his release. In the 1990 file, I found letters he wrote to U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch and President George W. Bush, along with countless, rambling hand-written accounts about how the system had wronged him.
“My unlawful convictions constitute a modern day lynching by a white racist judicial system/court,” Berryhill wrote to President Bush in 2001.
Also that year, an Oklahoma County district court judge imposed a $25 sanction on Berryhill for referring to the court as a “KKK Court” in one of legal briefs.
“Statements such as these are not tolerated by this court — and Petitioner can be assured that they are not tolerated regardless of their source,” the judge wrote in his order.
The money was ordered to be taken from Berryhill’s Department of Corrections inmate account.
A life of addiction
When he was a baby, Berryhill got a blood clot in his left hand and had to have his fingers amputated. He felt insecure about his disability growing up.
“…as a child I felt rejected,” Berryhill told the judge in his 1990 felony case. “I felt not a part of — I just felt indifferent and as I grew up I was not able to deal with peer pressure.”
Berryhill grew up with his mother, two brothers and a sister in Oklahoma City.
It was a loving, close-knit family, said Berryhill’s surviving older brother, Wister Berryhill. They had a good childhood, he said.
Wister Berryhill also had his share of legal troubles — so much in fact, he could never visit his brother in prison because of his criminal record.
“The bad decisions we made had nothing to do with our upbringing — our mother did the best she could,” he said.
Laverne and Wister saw their father maybe once a month. Their older brother, Edward Lee Glover, joined the Marines after high school and died from injuries he sustained while serving in Vietnam in 1968, four days shy of his 21st birthday.
“There never was a man in our home,” Wister Berryhill said. “I can’t remember one time a man being in our home.”
Berryhill started using heroin when he was a still teenager. Then he tried shooting up cocaine, which progressed to smoking crack.
“He was a good person, had a good heart,” Wister Berryhill said. “But it’s hard to be yourself when you’re strung out on any kind of drugs. When he wasn’t on drugs, he lived a normal life.”
Berryhill never received any treatment for his addiction.
“His problem was drugs and all they ever done for was him lock him up in the penitentiary and never let him out,” his brother said. “Eventually, he died in there after never receiving no kind of help for his problems.”
I first came across Berryhill about seven or eight years ago, working as a newspaper reporter in Oklahoma City. Each day, I would check county and federal court filings, trawling for interesting lawsuits.
At least a few times a month, I would run across a Berryhill’s name, listed as a plaintiff or petitioner in one of the many court cases he filed over the over the years. Mostly out of curiosity, I skimmed through one of them once.
All of his legal briefs were written using a ball-point pen in a distinctive script, filled with curlicues and flourishes. Each case contained hundreds of pages of Berryhill’s elaborate handwriting. He wrote his pleadings on unlined paper, but the text was so straight and precise it was as if he used a ruler. For economy, he often wrote on both sides of the paper, marking it with the word “over” at the bottom of each page.
In 2012, Berryhill, sued a full hand-written page worth of defendants, including Gov. Mary Fallin, all nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices, the FBI, two Oklahoma City law firms, the publisher of The Oklahoman newspaper and the private prison company The GEO Group for $3 billion in punitive damages each for what he claimed was a massive conspiracy to keep him locked up.
“On or about Oct. 1990, the petitioner was forced into Ku Klux Klan mentality judicial proceedings in the Okla. Co. Dist. Ct. [Oklahoma County District Court] and was placed in involuntary servitude, hard core, slave labor for over 20 years,” Berryhill wrote in his complaint.
The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed — they all eventually were.
As a young reporter, I viewed Berryhill’s litigiousness as an amusing oddity. I thought his story might have the makings of a quirky, comedic newspaper feature I would write some day. It was the sort of weird bit of news The Associated Press would pick up and maybe earn me a pat on the back from my editor.
I didn’t take the time to fully read Berryhill’s legal briefs, look up his convictions or ponder how a man’s wasted life inside an unjust system are not particularly entertaining or funny things.
I shelved the story idea and forgot about Berryhill for years. It’s easy to forget people in prison.
Berryhill stole. But here, I was guilty of a far greater sin.
A life behind bars
Behind bars, Berryhill racked up a lengthy disciplinary record.
In legal briefs, Berryhill describes an escape attempt in 1997, threatening to kill a prison warden in 2001 and years of misconduct reports that erased years of time credits that would have helped him get released from prison years early.
He also confessed to writing increasingly menacing letters to public officials, including mailing death threats to at least two U.S. presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In 2013, Berryhill sent letters containing a white powder he claimed was anthrax to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s office and to the offices of attorneys and federal courts in Oklahoma City and Washington D.C.
“The defendants are running wild and scared as I throw anthrax at them, in U.S. mail, on U.S. soil and getting [sic] away with it,” Berryhill wrote gleefully in one of his lawsuits.
The incident briefly made the local news, but Berryhill was never criminally charged for mailing the letters.
“When they realized it was me, it was nothing none of them could do,” Berryhill wrote.
Over the years, Berryhill also claimed to have sent multiple threatening letters to the the assistant Oklahoma County district attorney who prosecuted the 1990 larceny case that put him away for good. The prosecutor, Kerry Kelly, is now an assistant U.S. Attorney and was also frequently named as a defendant in Berryhill’s lawsuits.
I called Kelly, but she didn’t respond.
Some might argue Berryhill’s behavior in prison was a sane reaction to an irrational, uncaring system. But I can’t defend him here.
Berryhill continued to make bad choices in prison. Increasingly desperate, he tried to threaten and bully his way out of the criminal justice system.
Of course it didn’t work.
There was no rehabilitation for Berryhill in prison—only time and anger.
At some point, Berryhill started to believe he would never get out.
“He was just bitter that he had been in penitentiary for 20 some years,” Wister Berryhill said. “I think that had a lot to do with a lot of the problems that he had in there.”
From prison, Berryhill tried to sued Faulk for millions of dollars, claiming he was part of the conspiracy to keep him incarcerated.
Faulk was still sympathetic, even after I told him about the fake anthrax letters.
“I don’t blame him,” he said. “He shouldn’t have gotten 40 years for stealing meat — 20 to life is ridiculous.
Picture Berryhill’s six-inch thick case file. Now try to imagine more than 27,000 similar files stacked on top of one another—because that’s the number of people currently in the Oklahoma prison system.
The penalties for felony larceny of merchandise in Oklahoma have relaxed significantly since Berryhill’s 1990 conviction — as a felony, the crime now carries a maximum five-year prison sentence after a third or subsequent conviction. In November, Oklahoma will reduce the maximum sentence even further, down to two years in prison—part of the state’s ongoing criminal justice reform efforts.
But there’s still lots of people in prison who were sentenced under the old statutes.
I asked the Oklahoma Policy Institute to help me analyze data on Oklahoma prison sentences for felony larceny of merchandise obtained in 2017 by Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Looking through the data, lots of people get suspended sentences or probation, some are able to enter the drug court program, but there’s also many people in Oklahoma still serving five or 10-year prison sentences for basically what amounts to shoplifting.
This is a problem because Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the United States, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative.
In 2017, a state task force on criminal justice reform compared Oklahoma with neighboring states in an attempt to better understand the state’s skyrocketing incarceration rate.
Oklahoma also imposes longer average prison sentences than neighboring states.
The Meat Man’s final lawsuit
I still wanted to write about Berryhill and his weird lawsuits, but by the time I got around to looking him up again, he was dead.
Berryhill died after going into cardiac arrest in the back of an ambulance bound from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the nearest hospital on June 29, 2017.
The official cause of death was complications from cancer of the larynx.
Berryhill was last up for parole in March 2017, but the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board rejected his application.
He died months shy of his projected release date — October 2018.
“He was a sad case,” Rowan said. “What a waste of a life — he spent his life in the penitentiary for stealing meat.”
The last lawsuit I could find from Berryhill was filed just a few months before his death. His handwriting was getting a little sloppier. It looked like his pen was about to run out of ink on some of the pages and he definitely didn’t use a ruler.
He sued the state for “judicial kidnap” and “involuntary servitude.” He wrote about about his cancer treatments and what he believed was an increasingly vast government plot to keep him in prison.
“If this court does not afford me a medical emergency evidentiary hearing, I will die,” he wrote.
The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Berryhill’s last lawsuit on July 11, 2017 — 12 days after his death.
The prison mug shot that accompanied Berryhill’s obituary was not his most recent— it’s from 2003. He still looked young and defiant.
The Skaggs Alpha Beta grocery store off Interstate 240 in Oklahoma City closed years ago. There’s a gas station there now.
What does any of this mean?
What’s a man’s life worth?
What’s the real value of $52 worth of ribeye steaks?
I can’t tell you.